“There’s no one cleaning up after the party…”
Thesis: In addition to reducing pollution, we need to build and deploy floating clean-up robots in waterways and canals across the globe.
Plastic bottles are thought to take about 450 years to break down . Leaving plastic waste in landfills is a less than ideal solution.
And besides, a lot of plastic never makes it to the landfill. Over years, large plastic bottles are broken down into tiny and even microscopic “microplastics” that are so embedded within the ocean, sand, dirt and topsoil of our world that they will never be removed.
There are a few questions to consider before jumping in:
What should we really do with plastics, styrofoams, and other non-decomposable garbage?
How will we identify, collect, and transport these plastics to a safe and environmentally friendly final resting place?
From the landfill and back again:
Answering these questions is simple in theory, but more challenging in practice.
Plastics are made from petroleum, which comes from deep underground. Petroleum is like natural gas, crude oil, etc. At a chemical level, these petroleum resources are made of hydrocarbon polymers that can be used to make plastic.
Given that plastics are made from petroleum, which comes from underground, the logical place to put plastic waste is back where they came from – deep underground, between 3000 and 6000 feet. (That’s around 1 mile underground) 
It only makes sense that we should put them back where they came from. And perhaps the heat and pressure of Earth’s crust could accelerate the speed to which these waste products are transitioned back to crude petroleum.
But pulling petroleum out of the ground is a challenging business. Humans leverage advanced petroleum engineering technologies to extract these hydrocarbons. Imagine how much complicated engineering and drilling would be required to replace tons of plastic garbage materials back where they came from.
It would be next to impossible, and absolutely unaffordable. Its not going to happen.
Analogous to setting up for a party, when you set up and get ready for a party, you go buy food and drinks for your guests, setup decorations, plan games and activities, send out invitations and logistic information, etc.
Preparing for a party is fun and requires a bit of planning and effort.
After the party is over, however, there is a similar amount of un-fun effort required to clean up. There are dirty dishes and trash to be cleaned and disposed of. There may be spilled drinks on carpet or furniture, and you have to use something like Resolve carpet cleaner to restore them to their original condition.
The work required to clean up after the party is significantly more difficult than setting up for the party.
The problem with pollution in our world is that there is no one cleaning up after the party. And understandably so. Its a difficult, challenging, dirty, and expensive task.
Besides that, there’s no incentive to do so. Humans don’t want to clean up after other people all the time, yet everyone knows that all of us contribute to pollution.
This predicament is called the “Tragedy of the Commons”.
When you have a party at your house, you live in the direct vicinity of the mess that is left after a party. In the environment and world, however, people are able to artificially remove themselves from the mess created by society (aka pollution).
Although we have some vague perception that the great pacific garbage patch exists, because we don’t encounter it day to day as individuals, we are able to go on living our lives without feeling too bad about it.
Despite the complex, energy intensive manufacturing processes that are performed to make gasoline for cars and plastic goods, the vehicle exhaust, garbage and microplastics that enter our atmosphere and ocean have nowhere to go except accumulate in the environment.
Humans seem to have accepted the fact that these are are just left there.
But this is changing in some areas.
Some states like California and Hawaii have taken measures to prevent new plastic and garbage from entering the environment. Some popular prevention measures include smog inspections, no plastic grocery bags, no plastic straws, etc.
Prevention is good, but cleaning up is still needed.
We need an efficient and scalable way to clean up the Earth.
In order to relieve humans of the burden, perhaps we can leverage machines to take on the majority of plastic and garbage collection tasks associated with removing pollution from the environment.
There is good news. Humans have started doing this already. In Xi’an, China, there is a machine the size of a skyscraper whose sole purpose is to filter and purify the air.
Its extremely exciting to see humans embarking on these types of developments. Although, as there is no natural incentive to build these (due to the Tragedy of the Commons), perhaps governments can create artificial incentives, offering contracts to engineering and development contractors to build similar skyscrapers.
But how about plastic waste? How might we begin to remove plastics from the environment?
To make any meaningful change, we must start somewhere. China began with the noble mission of reducing air pollution, and has built air filtration skyscrapers.
To focus on removing plastics from the environment, targeting the ocean is a great place to start.
Cleaning the oceans with autonomous boats.
To remove pollution from the oceans, we need solar-powered autonomous boats whose sole purpose is dragging filtration systems through the ocean, and collecting plastic pollution.
Identifying plastic material from organic material and avoiding biological life will be important. Perhaps some sort of artificial intelligence image recognition could help identify plastic waste in the water.
Where to begin? Logically, the best places to deploy these robots are in near the areas of primary pollution – harbors, water ways, sewage outputs, etc.
Take the Ala Wai boat harbor in Honolulu, Hawaii.
The harbor connects the ocean to the Ala Wai canal.
A walk along the Ala Wai canal and a glance into the water will provide the onlooker with a glance at dirty water, old chairs, plastic bags, floating bottles, and more.
In a place as beautiful as Hawaii, its very sad to see any amount of garbage floating around.
And unfortunately, that water unfortunately carries bacteria, sewage, garbage, and more into the gorgeous turquoise waters surrounding the island of Oahu, and is ultimately dispersed across the entire world.
Remember, all the oceans are connected… despite different areas having different names, there is truly only one ocean on Earth. I saw a comedian on Instagram talk about the fact that there is truly only 1 ocean, and it made me think of this.
In terms of next steps, we need to find someone to build the robotic floating garbage collectors. It won’t be an easy task, but it is 100% possible.
Using an autonomy infrastructure tool such as Applied Intuition might help with the development of the software.
How much water can be filtered?
We should take a small area of the global water system like the Ala Wai canal, and deploy robotic cleaning ships here as a test. By measuring length * width we can calculate surface area, then performing various depth-measurements, we can take average depth and use this to calculate an estimate of total volume.
The throughput of each robotic boats will have an estimate of gallons per hour, or gallons per day etc.
In a perfect system, the boats will charge via some sort of docking station, or even run on solar power. They will need to be incredibly energy efficient, with no need to propel themselves too fast, they can remain largely stationary.
These may then be scaled up to larger ships that cruise across the ocean autonomously collecting garbage from the great pacific garbage patch and more.
To remove plastic from the ocean, it is only logical that we have water-filtration boats.
The white-paper presented above simply contains ideas. I am not doing these, I am just an idea maker.
And if you’ve made it to the end of this post, good news! These robots already do exist.
But if they already exist, why is there still so much plastic in the ocean? How much of an impact to these autonomous boats actually have on the reduction of plastic in the ocean?
And then of course a few follow up questions inevitably arise:
After collecting a large amount of the garbage, the important question then becomes what do we do with the plastic? It will be great to remove it from the ocean, but where do we put it as a final resting place?
Follow the Future of Tech email newsletter (below), which is free and focuses on exploring emerging technology.
- Where does crude oil come from
- Xi’an tower in China